BELLEVILLE — In some ways, the 2013-14 season has been one of the longest in the NJCAA Hall-of-Fame coaching career of Jay Harrington. But at least its a winning one.
Beset by injuries from the opening day of practice until now, Harrington's Southwestern Illinois College squad enters the start of the Region 24 Tournament on Thursday as the No. 4 seed and with an 18-12 record.
"With what we've been through with academic issues and with the injuries we've had for us to finish 18-12, it's not a good year -- it's a great one,'' Harrington said. "Every team has academic issues, but never in my 37 years as a head coach have I ever seen a team go through the injuries we've had this season. In the Big Ten Conference, its always been said that if you finish in the top four, it's been a good year. In that respect, we've had a good year,''
The fourth-seeded Blue Storm plays its first round game in the Region 24 Tournament at 2 p.m. Thursday when it takes on fifth-seed Shawnee College at host Rend Lake College in Ina.
Shawnee, which finished 18-9, split the regular season meetings with SWIC. Shawnee defeated SWIC by three points at Shawnee in January and SWIC posted a 12-point win over Shawnee at home on Friday.
"If you ask me, Shawnee is a team which is a dangerous one heading into the postseason because they are so darn quick and from end-to-end. They've got great speed. Two of their players are the fastest in the (Great Rivers Athletic) conference, bar none,'' Harrington said. "They are a team which has four smaller players and one big player in back. They get the ball and go on offense, and on defense they'll full-court press you for 40 minutes.
"The first time we played them (Jaquail) Townser didn't play, but he played on Friday and we were able to handle them a little better."
Perennial national power Vincennes University is the top seed in the tournament, while Lake Land College and John A. Logan College are seeded second and third.
Semifinals are set for Friday, with the title game scheduled for Friday. The Region 24 champion advances to the NJCAA National Tournament, which begins next week in Hutchinson, Kan.
Despite losing sophomores Brandon Book and Townser along with several others during the season, SWIC enters tournament play at the top of its game. Once 10-10, the Blue Storm are 8-2 in the last month. That mark is second only to Vincennes which is undefeated in that time frame.
The Blue Storm has had several players step up and play well in recent games, including sophomore Michael Schmidt and freshman Hunter Reine.
Reine had a double-double with 15 points and 12 rebounds against Shawnee on Friday. Schmidt has stepped up as a point guard.
"Michael Schmidt is probably the biggest reason we've played well in the past few games," Harrington said. "He's done a great job of handling the basketball, which has allowed us to move Jaquail to the shooting guard spot, which has helped our offense."
Harrington said he is confident in his team's ability to compete well in the always rugged tournament.
"How far can we go?" Harrington asked. "I think we're probably one of those teams that nobody wants to play because we're capable of beating anybody here."
Contact reporter Dean Criddle at 239-2661 or firstname.lastname@example.org